The clue to a person's age is not hands so much as precious cultural references. The outstanding age indicator of these past days has been the media coverage of Ronnie Biggs. The name means little if you are under 40. Yet the front pages of most newspapers carried heartfelt coverage of the villain's final release from prison on the 46th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery.
I am afraid his funeral will be a ghastly, sentimental, criminal, mirror version of the blameless Harry Patch's. Last of a kind. Pint of bitter on the coffin. One for the (downhill) road. It will bring out the bad in everybody: the right wing, which thinks hanging is too good for Biggs; the left wing, which regards all criminals as victims; Joan Bakewell, who will celebrate the whole episode as the triumph of old age. But the worst will be the newspaper journalists of the Fleet Street era who have one last chance to dredge up their memories of the tale of Ronnie Biggs.
In the week that The Observer was threatened with closure and Rupert Murdoch determined that online news should become a working business model, the Ronnie Biggs story rose again as the spirit of old Fleet Street. Newspapers may now cringe before the power of Google, but in the 1970s they were riotously fun places to be. I became a journalist purely on account of Anthony Delano's book about the Fleet Street chase to find Ronnie Biggs in hiding in Brazil.
It is hard to convey now that the Daily Express was a fine newspaper, or that journalists could alight on scoops and follow them across the world, no expense spared. The Express reporter who landed Biggs in Brazil cabled the message, "Anvil happened OK."
Cabled! He did not blog or twitter. It was almost as glamorous as Jan Morris's coded message to The Times in 1953 that snow conditions were bad awaiting improvement, which translated as Edmund Hillary had conquered Everest. Jan Morris was a 26- year-old subeditor. The Express reporter was regarded as incompetent by senior executives when he jumped on the plane to Brazil. But a scoop was a scoop.
The Ronnie Biggs story was more touching than Everest because it embraced human failing and black humour. It is sometimes cited as the British version of Jesse James, but it was essentially an Ealing comedy.
What one remembers is Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard, tipped off by the Express (another anachronism – respect for the authorities), and his rehearsed line, " Long time no see, Ronnie", as he walked into Biggs's hotel room. Then, when Brazil refused to hand over Biggs, the famous photograph of Slipper flying home, an empty seat beside him.
Slipper was sensitive to media mockery and met the Mail's Keith Waterhouse at the Wig and Pen Club in Fleet Street. (Typing these names is making me sigh and wheeze like an old carthorse.) Slipper protested that he was not, as portrayed, an unsophisticated man. He knew how to order a beer in Brazil. "I've been to Malta. I've been to Rhodesia."
Biggs himself lived in Redhill, escaped from Wandsworth prison, resurfaced in Melbourne, and said his final wish was to "walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter". The places have a Jez Butterworth comedic ring to them.
It was a dingy old pre-Harriet Harman world of men with hats and bad teeth and their female molls – in Fleet Steet and in gangland. That is why the newspapers cannot let the story die. Their dreams die with it.Reuse content